Moving beyond the need to be self-critical

Three years ago today I signed up for the free newsletter emailer at TinyLetter.com and started a blog. Like most bloggers, I was very faithful to my writing for the first year or two but then mostly overlooked it. This year I’ve averaged less than one Tiny Letter a month.

I’m always humbled to receive replies from friends who appreciate my thoughts when I do express them. They don’t always agree with my opinions but invariably seem grateful when I articulate them. They appear delighted when I write but don’t judge me when I don’t.

Significantly I don’t judge myself when I don’t write. I regard it as one of my greatest achievements in life that I have moved beyond the need to be self-critical in this way.

Self-criticism is common in young people. With particular generations including my own, it might be a product of religious teaching. Or it could be a matter of poor self-esteem that is the result of bullying or other psychological or sexual abuse.

A turning point for me occurred on this day three years ago, when I had a private session with the Commissioner at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

I’d always regarded my experience of sexual abuse as insignificant. The meeting with the Commissioner did not change that. But it helped me appreciate the context of the abuse, which was the psychological power plays in institutions that prevented many children from growing into confident adults.

This often occurred at the hands of authority figures in the institutions who themselves were damaged human beings. Their behaviour tended to go hand in hand with distortions of religious doctrine that fostered guilt and diminished young people’s self-image.

Like many of my contemporaries, I was affected by this right up until the moment of my retirement, also three years ago. It was not coincidental that I’d spent a large part of my working life working for religious institutions, for the most part adopting a subservient demeanour.

But I feel I was able to draw a line under this self-critical pattern of behaviour in 2015, around the time of my retirement and my meeting with the Commissioner.

On the day of that meeting I had a sense that I was shedding the yoke of my past and entering a new life in which nobody including myself would judge me. That has proven to be the case.

That day was in fact my my birthday, as is today. I’ve just turned 60 and officially become a Senior in the eyes of the NSW Government. I have my Seniors and Gold Opal transport concession cards as a badge of this particular honour.

For me, being a senior means that I am affirmed and not judged. There can be many challenges for people at this stage of life, including health, loneliness, finance and often greater suffering when natural disasters strike.

But if other seniors have learned the lessons I have, our often newfound psychological resilience can allow us to face adversity in a way we couldn’t when we were robbed of self-confidence in our younger days.

The purification of Holy Innocents Cemetery

At the centre of the square next to my Paris street - Rue de la Ferronnerie - is the Fountain of the Innocents. It is the oldest monumental fountain in Paris and a focal point for the groups of young people that gather there.

The other day I saw a very old map of the city. I noticed that the square was marked as a cemetery, and it included a church named after the Holy Innocents. Innocents refers to the male infants King Herod ordered massacred, according to the biblical narrative.

I did some research and discovered that the space had indeed been a burial ground from the Middle Ages until the late 18th century. It was then condemned as a health hazard.

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The corpses and bones were subsequently exhumed and transported to underground storage near Montparnasse, on the other side of the city. This site is now known as the Catacombs and open to the public as a tourist attraction. The Innocents church was demolished and the fountain moved to the centre, where it still stands.

I’m now half way through a 2011 novel on the exhumation, by Booker Prize nominated British writer Andrew Miller. Titled Pure, it recreates the story of the removal of the corpses, which it depicts as a purification.

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This took place on the eve of the French Revolution, which could crudely be described as the forces of reason replacing the cloud of religious superstition. A purification of sorts, though the term refers more directly to the foul smell that permeated the area. It would turn fresh produce rotten and taint the breath of the residents.

The main character is a young engineer named Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a fervent believer in rationality. The family he boards with are given to superstition and are hostile to his work once they discover what it is.

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My interest is heightened by the coincidence concerning the historic Camperdown cemetery at the top of my street in Sydney. In the late 1940s, ghost stories and a murder led to demands for the ‘purification’ of a large section of the site.

This took the form of the transfer of headstones to the area next to adjacent church, and use of the space for the creation of the Camperdown Memorial Rest Park. Today it’s a well frequented meeting place for young people and dog owners.

The role of ordinary Catholics in clerical sex abuse

In recent days I've had an email conversation with a friend in New Zealand about the forced resignation of Palmerston North Bishop Charles Drennan.

A young woman had come forward to complain that she'd been the victim of inappropriate sexual behaviour on Drennan's part. The resignation came after the Church's investigative body contracted an outside investigator to evaluate her claim.

Details of the claim were not revealed at her request. But the country's most senior Catholic Cardinal John Dew said: 'In the eyes of the Catholic Church, Bishop Drennan’s behaviour was completely unacceptable.'

The US publication CruxNow pointed out that the Church has long considered sexual relationships between clerics and adult women to be sinful and inappropriate, but not criminal or necessarily worthy of permanent sanction.

'However, the #MeToo movement and the scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, an American defrocked by Francis for sexual misconduct, have forced a reckoning about the imbalance of power in relationships between clerics and lay adults, nuns and seminarians, and whether such relationships can ever be consensual.'

I experienced this imbalance when I was a trainee Jesuit teaching in one of the order's schools 30 years ago. While I wasn't technically a cleric, I sensed that I was being accorded much more respect than I was due. At parent-teacher events, and when invited to parents' homes for a meal, I was treated like royalty.

I felt that I could get to enjoy this. Many clerics did, and turned it to their advantage. Then when their sex drive kicked in, some would not hold back.

I remember witnessing the rector of another college touching women inappropriately at a garden party. It was 40 years before #metoo and women would put up with such behaviour. At most they'd whisper behind the cleric's back that he was a 'sleaze'.

We now know that the power imbalance is the cause not only of perhaps inconsequential touching, but serious sexual abuse of minors. It often leads to lifelong mental illness and sometimes drug abuse and suicide.

My NZ friend commented on clericalism in the context of sexual abuse: 'Most people don’t understand it. I worked hard to get my head around it.'

But she ended with an anecdote that suggests the clerical state does not have to affect priests in this way.

'Our cardinal [John Dew] wrote recently "Call me John" about how it was important to call priests and religious by their names rather than using the epithet.'

While I find that very uplifting, I was troubled by her next sentence, in which she said that most people in her parish 'dismissed it'.

Such dismissal suggests the real source of the problem could actually be ordinary Catholics playing into the clergy's hands with a self-deprecating 'Yes Father' attitude.

When I was a school student, I remember one of the priests asking to be called by his first name. When I referred to 'Geoff' in front of my father, he berated me, insisting that it was customary for us to show special respect for priests by not using their first name.

The kind of respect we show towards clerics is our choice. Clergy are able to behave as if they're a race apart - and take sexual liberties - because ordinary Catholics give them licence to do it. The pope and other senior leaders appoint them but we decide how to respect them and live with the consequences.

The challenge of tranquillity on Rodrigues Island

After a week in Mauritius, I arrived in Rodrigues with my Australian-Mauritian friend. Rodrigues is a small Indian Ocean island with a population of around 40,000.

It is part of Mauritius, though some distance away. Further than the island of Réunion, which is culturally close to Mauritius and Rodrigues but a Department of France.

Rodrigues has a distinctive relationship with Mauritius. I realised this when we had to go through passport control when leaving the island of Mauritius and arriving on the island of Rodrigues, as if it was a different country.

There is an autonomous Regional Assembly that makes at least some of its own laws. Most notable for us was the ban on plastic bags that doesn't exist on the island of Mauritius.

We were instructed to surrender all plastic bags upon arrival at the airport. An unusual pleasure, though a few hours later we were disappointed to see plastic bottles on the beach.

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Rodrigues' ethnic makeup is different to that of Mauritius, with a mainly Creole population of African origin and very few Hindus and Muslims. It seems dry and barren compared to Mauritius. Water is obviously very precious, with low pressure and interruptions to the supply.

However that is part of the simplicity of the experience. We're staying in the Oasis Vacances guest house in the isolated location of Point Diable. It feels like a two star hotel, but it's clean, and that's my preference.

Upon arrival the biggest challenge for me was the tranquillity, which provides quite a contrast to the vibrance of Mauritius.

I can't recall ever having stayed on a small island before, and it seemed there was nothing to do. But that, I realised, was the point.

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Like many people, I'm oriented towards doing things, and indeed that is how I filled my week in Mauritius.

But here time is passed looking out at the ocean and reading, while sitting around at the guest house. Apart from a few roosters crowing, there are few sounds.

Yesterday I was apprehensive about how I'd fill the two and a half days, thinking that is was closer to a religious retreat than anything else I'd experienced. But now I'm feeling it's something I could get to like.

English and French in Mauritius

I arrived in the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius at lunchtime yesterday, here for a ten day visit with an Australian friend whose homeland it is.

It was a clear day so I enjoyed glimpses of the island from the air and noted the engraving of the national symbol the dodo on the disembarkation card.

I also observed the odd mixture of English and French, often used together. The street where my Airbnb is located is Père Laval Street - not Rue Père Laval or Father Laval Street. My host is a real estate agent and she explained that the transactions are negotiated in French but based on English law.

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Père Laval was a 19th century French missionary priest, who is more properly referred to as Blessed Jacques-Désiré Laval. His cause for canonisation was given a boost earlier this month when Pope Francis visited the island.

Laval was medical practitioner who'd written a doctoral thesis on rheumatoid arthritis. As a priest he is best known for devoting his energies to the poor in Mauritius, and he remains a unifying figure who is also respected by the increasingly Hindu majority.

Walking around the streets was a little dangerous, as they do not have footpaths and the cars travel at speed. We called at an old-style street shop and noticed it was selling napolitaines.

They are a sweet treat made by sandwiching jam between two shortbread cookies, prepared with flour and butter and covered with a layer of pink icing. I knew about them from Australia because a Mauritian friend made them commercially because she felt drawn to introduce as aspect of her family's culture to Australia.


More photos on Instagram.


Paris the home of bad coffee

Paris is known for its café culture but not for good coffee. A 2010 article in the New York Times asked why it’s so bad. The answer included old beans, over-roasted beans, second-rate machines, and coffee ground in batches and not to order.

Coffee in Paris is in fact getting better. But it’s mainly due to the influence of foreigners, including Australians and New Zealanders. 
 
Pfaff, a business near me, sells coffee machines but not coffee. When I went there earlier this year I met a genial Frenchman named Guillaume, who learned to make good coffee when he worked in New Zealand. He will offer you a cup of his first class espresso if you’re chatting with him, perhaps in the hope that one day he’ll sell you one of his expensive machines.

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In Australia, it’s usual to have to travel some distance for a good cake shop or delicatessen. In Paris you have to do the same for a good coffee. I didn’t know exactly where to go until last weekend, when an Australian friend sent me a list of six of the best cafés in Paris for coffee. I’ve been walking the inner arrondissements and sampling one, each day this week.
 
The first I visited was Fringe, in the 3rd arrondissement. Its American owner has trained his American baristas in precision extraction (there’s a mathematical formula). There they put the hot water through the ground coffee for exactly 27 seconds. I didn’t hear any French spoken by the clientele. It was all American accented English. But the coffee was the best.

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I’m no expert in what makes a good coffee but you know it when you taste one. The flavour is intense and it stays in your mouth for hours. At this moment I’m still savouring the Ethiopian double espresso that I had a few hours ago at Coutume, in the 7th arrondissement. While I was there the baristas were in WhatsApp contact with their Australian boss and co-founder and they seemed pleased but not surprised that an Australian customer had tracked them down. 

Filth with a purpose

Knowing I was in Paris, a friend taunted me by sending an article from the Guardian titled ‘Paris, city of romance, rues new image as the dirty man of Europe’.

I replied that it was just another English put down of the French. I added the suggestion that the filth is partly a reflection of the anarchy and right to protest that the French respect.

Foreign tourists tend to treat Paris as a kind of Disneyland for grown ups. To them it’s an aesthetic and cultural haven. They like to think that time has stood still and nothing is out of place. 

So it’s no surprise that they are upset by the ubiquity of the graffiti tags, or the shop windows that have been damaged by members of the Yellow Vests protest movement. 

So am I. Until I read about how the French underclass has been disenfranchised by political leaders who are most sympathetic to big business, which includes tourism. I begin to understand how the tags are a medium of expression for those who are otherwise voiceless.

Earlier in the year I attended a talk by Edouard Louis, a young public intellectual from a working class background. I had been reading his three short autobiographical novels.

As a philosopher, he is recognised as a bridge between rationality and the Yellow Vest movement, which is regarded by many as barbarous. 

Louis managed to extract himself from the underclass from which the Yellow Vests originate. He understands their grievances only too well, though he stresses his abhorrence for the racism and homophobia of some of them.

He was asked to comment on the Yellow Vests’ acts of vandalism against the Arc de Triomphe, an important symbol of the Republic. He said: ‘You really have never experienced misery to be able to think that a tag on a historical monument is more serious than the impossibility of living [a decent life].’

From now on, I will try to respect graffiti tags I see around Paris, and even back home in Sydney.

Unlocking the truth about George Pell's conviction

George Pell’s conviction was a surprise to me. I’m at a loss to explain to myself how it came about. It is astonishing to think that a man of his stature and cunning could have done such things. The victim’s presentation to the jury as sole witness must have been compelling. 

When I’m part of a ‘did he or didn’t he’ conversation, I argue that we cannot pretend to know if Pell is guilty because we were not present for the testimony of the witness. 

I am not an expert, but the more I read about the fragmentary and therefore ‘unreliable’ nature of human memory, the more I’m convinced that the form or demeanour of a testifying witness can be more telling than the verbal content of his or her testimony. 

Increasingly I’m reluctant to take literally words in the recall of a witness. In the same way, I’m not a biblical fundamentalist and therefore don’t read the Bible literally. I interpret its words in the light of a range of factors including studies in history and literature.

In the case of the Pell trial, I’m imagining that the jury would have interpreted the verbal recall in light of emotions the witness was displaying. They would have provided the key that those of us not present do not have to inform our judgment.

Many people dismiss any element of testimony that is thought to be guided by emotion. Court proceedings are based on rational argument that takes what a witness says literally. If holes can be picked in the verbal narrative of the witness, the allegations remain unproven. This might stand to reason, but I think the approach needs to be rethought.

I’m currently reading the recent book Diving for Seahorses: The Science and Secrets of Human Memory, which was written by two Norwegian sisters, one a neuropsychologist and the other a writer and journalist. It looks at the evolution of our understanding of memory, including the watershed questioning by the father of psychology William James, in the late 19th century.

‘When James was alive, people thought of each memory as a unit, a copy of reality, like something that could be pulled out of a folder in a filing cabinet.’

But instead the key to understanding memory came to be seen as the seahorse, ‘slowly swaying in rhythm with the sensory areas and the emotion and awareness centres of the brain’. 

Hence the Greek word for seahorse - hippocampus - was used to name the elongated ridges on the floor of each lateral ventricle of the brain, thought to be the centre of emotion and memory.

The fact that our recollections are influenced by emotions and sense perception - such as taste and smell - means that two people who have experienced the same phenomenon will often have completely different memories of it. 

This could explain why contextual information about Pell’s sexual abuse that was provided to the media by others does not square with the witness testimony of the victim. Because it's said to be unlikely that Pell would have returned so quickly to the sacristy, the victim's testimony is thought to be discredited.

The ABC journalist Louise Milligan is one of the few people aside from the jury to have met the victim. She said ‘I defy anyone to meet this man and not think that he is telling the truth.’

Perhaps we should refrain from advancing opinions on the truth or otherwise of the victim’s testimony until we get to meet him.

A journey to the far west of NSW and beyond

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend who urged me to write about my recent nine day trip to Broken Hill and the Flinders Ranges. This time last week I was returning to Sydney on the Broken Hill Explorer train after visiting the 'silver city', along with the Flinders Ranges and a couple of South Australian towns including Peterborough and Quorn.

I was without my travelling companion on the return journey. One 14 hour rail journey is enough for most people and he took a flight from Broken Hill to Sydney. But I'm a self-confessed train nerd and was more than happy to travel back on the weekly NSW passenger train that was removed from service a few decades ago and then reinstated after pressure from a local politician.

Long distance country trains can't compete with the airlines, and this one wasn't very full. I'd long been anxious to take the journey before the route is cancelled again. It beats the Indian Pacific to the extent that you get to travel across NSW during daylight hours and can witness the slow transition from Sydney's urban sprawl through the Blue Mountains and fertile farm lands to the sparse desert vegetation of the state's west. Gazing at the landscape through a train window is my idea of meditation.

Railways had been the economic lifeline of most of the towns we visited, and their decline accompanied economic stagnation. Rural industries have their good and bad years and this year the local communities are suffering hardship from the drought. Broken Hill was an Australian mining town like no other but there is no longer activity in that sector.

Everywhere there are signs of past prosperity. The city is struggling to reinvent itself through art and tourism and solar power generation. I remember noting in the 1970s that the city's population was a shade over 30,000, 3000 more than that of Albury, where I was growing up. Now Broken Hill's population is around 17,000 and Albury's approaching 60,000. There are a few bright spots such as the Living Desert Sculptures and the annual Broken Heel Festival in September, which celebrates the theatrical anniversary of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. 

If Broken Hill is on a long trajectory towards becoming a ghost town, nearby Silverton trades on being just that. With a population of just 50, it has been rescued from obscurity by the film and TV industry, which regularly uses the town and its surrounds for sets. We drove past the Mad Max Museum and the Silverton Hotel, which has featured in more than a dozen productions.

Coburn Hotel Cockburn SA

Our favourite ghost town was the once bustling South Australian border town of Cockburn, which has a population of 56. We stopped for lunch at the Coburn Hotel (above), which was recently saved from closure by residents, who take it in turns to volunteer to staff it. The president of the Progress Association Iris Williams proudly showed us around the hotel, which offers drinks, toasted sandwiches and simple accommodation. The following day, my guide at Peterborough's Steamtown heritage rail museum told me that he had been stationed at Cockburn when it was an important railway town.

Once one of Australia's most important rail hubs, Peterborough itself is just as quiet a working railway town as Cockburn. I walked the length of the abandoned railway platform, which is now covered in bird droppings. We had breakfast at the Duck Duck Goose Cafe, where the owner Matt told us about the cheap property prices and that he had not looked back since relocating from Newtown in Sydney. We told him that we too are from Newtown and he knew exactly how far we'd come culturally. 


Photos

The love of fat

This morning I had the pleasure of listening to a podcast about fat, from a recent ABC radio broadcast.

It was a pleasure because it celebrated fat. Duck fat, butter, lard, bread and dripping, and suet were all discussed.

There was an interview with a veteran Italian-Australian butcher whose pet hate was customers asking for fat to be trimmed from the meat, despite knowing it would diminish the flavour.

That's because, over the past 50 years or so, most of the developed world has, it seems, been brainwashed into thinking that fat is bad for us.

Recently I've also watched That Sugar Film on SBS, which traces the history of the tarnishing of fat's public image, to the heart attack suffered by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955.

This event thrust the issue of heart disease into the public domain, with two theories emerging. One, from US physiologist Ancel Keys, declared that fat was the problem. The other was from British physician John Yudkin, who believed sugar was to blame.

Over the next two decades, the discussion brought fierce arguments from both camps. Keys won out, fat became the villain, sugar was exonnerated, and 'low fat' was institutionalised as the only healthy diet.

Not surprisingly, sugar industry lobbyists played a major role in demonising fat, which was systematically removed from otherwise healthy foods and replaced by sugar and carbohydrates.

One of my greatest sources of pleasure this year has been cheeses and sausages and other high fat foods including nuts, offal and full-fat Greek yoghurt. I have embraced these at the expense of sugar and carbs, and received very favourable blood test results from the GP earlier this month.

I was a healthy weight and receiving good test results for several years before I made the change in my diet. Friends wondered about my motivation, and sometimes I did as well. I guess my best explanation was that I did it 'for the love of fat'.

If there's a lesson for all of us at this time of new year's resolution making, it's that it's better to choose a positive lifestyle change that seems more like an indulgence, and to forget about 'giving up' something that is supposed to be not good for us.



Links: Podcast | That Sugar Film